SAN DIEGO — When California's recycling rate slid below the 25 percent threshold spelled out in state law, regulators last year prodded Toro Co. to use 25 percent recycled high density polyethylene in its oil bottles. In theory, it is an easy way to conserve natural resources and do good for the environment. In practice, however, it has proved a little more complicated than that.
Many of Toro's bottles contain two-cycle motor oil for lawn mowers and snow blowers. But as the company found out in 1996 in an abortive attempt to use recycled content, the bottles leaked. That did not happen with the all-virgin bottles, and Toro believes that is because the oil contains solvents that migrate into the recycled HDPE and weaken the bottle.
This time around, Toro was able to use 25 percent recycled HDPE. But to make the bottles strong enough, the company is testing bottles that are 10-15 percent heavier, said Joe Newberg, manager for product safety and government relations for Bloomington, Minn.-based Toro.
In short, to comply with a law designed to save natural resources, the company had to make the bottles bigger, dramatically reducing the amount of virgin material saved.
Toro's example may be unusual, but it illustrates what the plastics industry says are some of the complexities and repercussions involved in mandating recycled content. Government regulators, environmentalists and company representatives gathered in San Diego May 15-16 to talk about how California's law, which is one of the most aggressive state statutes, is working.
Judging by other examples at the conference, the law seems to have accomplished its goal of reducing plastic packaging waste. 3M Co. and Huish Detergents Inc., for example, both said they did not have problems like Toro.
Huish, for example, boosted recycled content in its HDPE bottles to 20 percent, from the previous level of 7.5 percent. Don Golladay, regulatory affairs supervisor at Salt Lake City-based Huish, said it was difficult and expensive but probably would not have happened without the state law pushing the company.
Huish, a private-label maker of detergents for Wal-Mart, Costco and other chains, started ramping up recycled content in 1996 when it realized it could face sanctions if the statewide recycling rate ever fell too low, as it now has.
Like many firms, Golladay said his company cannot design products just for California, so a California standard means it must put recycled content into its packages nationwide.
"When we sell to a customer, we don't know whether it is going to California or Oregon or New York," he said.
For technical reasons, he said the company probably has plateaued at 20 percent recycled content. Environmental group Californians Against Waste and some legislators want to require companies to use 35 percent recycled content, just as they must do for glass, but Golladay doubts his company can meet that.
"We have been trying to get those percentages up," he said. "I think we are doing a good job with that."
Technically, 20 percent content is not high enough to comply with California's rigid plastic packaging container law. According to the law, if the overall recycling rate falls below 25 percent, then firms must use 25 percent recycled content, source-reduce by 10 percent or make containers refillable.
Golladay, who made a presentation at the California Integrated Waste Management Board's conference, said the board has not contacted him about whether the company needs to use 25 percent recycled content, beyond asking for information on how much post-consumer resin he uses. Huish has 18 blow molding machines in two factories.
Bottle appearance is very important for his customers, and post-consumer resin can give a yellow tint to white bottles and cause variations to other colors, he said. Pigments can be added, but those cost two to three times what the resin does, he said. Post-consumer-content bottles sometimes have problems with stress cracking, too, he said.
3M, which also was forced by California regulators last year to reduce packaging waste, said it complied with the law without major problems. The company cut the weight of its bottles and uses post-consumer resin in secondary packaging to comply with the law, said Chris Reed, a 3M package engineer. But, like Toro, 3M's compliance had some unintended consequences, he said.
The company shifted two recent product launches from rigid plastic containers into flexible packaging, because that is not covered by the law, he said. Flexible packaging is typically recycled much less frequently.
"It is easier in some cases to avoid it than to comply," he said.
And the company has to use stronger corrugated packaging — generating more waste in another area — to protect one of its lighter-weight low density PE bottles, he said.
The threat of complying with the law forced syrup maker Hershey Foods to lighten the weight of its bottles in the mid-1990s, when the law first went into effect.
A Hershey representative told the conference the company decided on source reduction when it thought it would have to meet the law. Food packaging was later exempted, but environmentalists want to put it back in.
Other manufacturers complained that it is hard to use recycled content in injection molded containers like tubs for butter and cream cheese.
Recycled resin has a much lower melt-flow index, and as a result flows much more slowly than virgin material used in the containers, said Brent Beeler, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Berry Plastics Corp. in Evansville, Ind.
Manufacturers like the higher melt-flow materials because they can make container walls thinner, while using recycled resin requires thicker walls, he said.
"What [post-consumer recycling] legislation does to our industry is turn us backwards," Beeler said.
Manufacturers also have concerns about whether recycled resin would cause odors or compromise safety, or stand up to hot filling of beverage containers.
Recycled HDPE is used in many nonfood applications but is tough to use in food because it "is a sponge — it soaks up material," said Gerald Claes, general manager of environmental programs for Graham Packaging Co. in York, Pa. "There are better ways to recycle [HDPE] than going back into a food bottle."
PET, on the other hand, has many food applications, including recent examples in beer and soft drink packaging. Between 50 and 70 percent of Continental PET Technologies Inc.'s PET bottles have recycled content, in levels as high as 25 percent, said Warwick Hassan, manager of environment and recycling for Florence, Ky.-based Continental.
But Hassan said he does not think government needs to boost demand for recycled material: "If the purpose of why people are pushing for recycled content is to promote collection or recycling of bottles, I don't see it as necessary because demand exceeds supply."
Dan Eaton, chairman of the Waste Board, told the conference that government agencies are finding it increasingly difficult to find beneficial uses for waste products. The state currently diverts 37 percent of its waste stream but wants to divert 50 percent, he said.
Eaton cited Toro as an example where the Waste Board tried to not be rigid in its approach. But he also said "there is no reason why those who make the products cannot help us find other markets."
Toro's Newberg said the Waste Board "was a very reasonable organization to deal with. They had their requirements. They weren't unreasonable in giving us the time we needed."
Rick Best, policy director of Californians Against Waste, said local governments in the state want to see more plastics recycling. He said Los Angeles, for example, recently enacted a law requiring all containers sold in vending machines at local government facilities to have recycled content.
The lack of industry involvement in recycled content is a critical problem, he said: "The public, local governments and recyclers really see plastics as a critical issue."